Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo
Wheaton College associate professor Larycia Hawkins talks to reporters during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Hawkins, a Christian teaching political science at the private evangelical school west of Chicago, was put on leave Tuesday.

Why are non-Muslim women wearing the hijab?

A professor who posted photos of herself in a headscarf in a show of solidarity with Muslim women was placed on administrative leave. Other non-Muslims are also donning the hijab. Some applaud the gesture, others say it appears reductionist or antifeminist. 

A Wheaton College professor who has been placed on administrative leave after posting photos of herself in a traditional Muslim headscarf has become the latest non-Muslim to publicly wear the hijab to convey solidarity with those who practice Islam.

The gesture reflects a growing drive to don the hijab in a show of support for the Muslim community. And while the act may have its limitations – some say it is reductionist, others that it could appear antifeminist – many say the practice is encouraging in a time of growing anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I’m finding a lot of people are outraged by what they see as very bigoted rhetoric on the national scene. So I think people [do this] as their sense of defending the American ideal of religious pluralism, and the ethic of being welcoming to foreigners and people in need,” says Celene Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar and educator and member of the chaplaincy team at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass.

“It’s a beautiful act of solidarity,” she adds. “I see this very much in that context of wider community embrace.”

On Dec. 10, Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton, posted photos of herself in a headscarf with a message saying that she stands at one with Muslims, adding that they “worship the same God” as Christians. The school took issue with her remarks, which it felt were at odds with the college’s evangelical Christian mission.

It is the photos, however, that make Professor Hawkins part of a growing cohort of women and girls in the United States and elsewhere who, over the past few years, have used the headscarf as a means of identifying with the challenges hijabi women face.

“It’s a really great interfaith activity,” says Faryal Khatri, communications assistant for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Plainfield, Ind. “It’s a great way to open dialogue, a way to understand how really deeply it represents faith” to some Muslims.

Anti-feminist or a show of sisterhood?

Hijab, an Arabic word that means “barrier” or “partition,” has long been misunderstood in Western cultures as a symbol of oppression – a way for Muslim men to express control over women’s bodies, says Professor Ibrahim at Tufts.

But the idea, she says, is less about male domination than the value of modesty; a perception of the body as something to be revered and protected.

“The hijab as it’s classically understood is not simply about covering the hair,” she says. “It’s about a particular type of presence that a woman carries into the public spaces that she occupies. It’s a way in which you try not to oversexualize your body in your forms of dress.”

For contemporary feminists – especially in the West – the concept can be difficult to accept, says Cynthia Eller, a professor of women and religion at Claremont Graduate University in California.

“[The headscarf] is a very tormented issue for American feminists,” she says. “You want to support women who want to wear this as well as women who don’t. But the politics of the headscarf, especially in an American context … pushes the problem of male predatory sexuality back on women, [as though] women are supposed to dress in such way so as not to make themselves enticing to men.”

“We shouldn’t have to dress in a particular way,” she says.

Still, she notes, if done in the name of tolerance and understanding, non-Muslims who choose to wear a headscarf can have a positive impact.

“It would be very unfortunate if we decided as a society that the way to deal with predatory male sexuality would be to wear a hijab,” Professor Eller says. But in the context of fighting anti-Muslim sentiment, she says, “it’s a wonderful showing of sisterhood. It would be great if men did the same thing.”

‘Walk a Mile in her Hijab’

Among the first to popularize the idea of non-Muslims wearing the hijab in solidarity is social activist Nazma Khan. Having moved to New York from Bangladesh, Ms. Khan found herself the only hijabi girl at her new American school.

“I experienced a great deal of discrimination due to my hijab,” Khan said in a statement. “In middle school, I was ‘Batman’ or ‘ninja’. When I entered University after 9/11, I was called ‘Osama Bin Laden’ or ‘terrorist.’ It was awful. I figured the only way to end discrimination is if we ask our fellow sisters to experience hijab themselves.”

Khan founded World Hijab Day in 2013, using social media to call on women and girls worldwide to put on the hijab in an effort to counter stereotypes and foster understanding.

The resulting stories vary. Freelance journalist Felice León – who spent a day in New York City wearing a headscarf – found that the people closest to her were the ones who expressed “the strongest and most bigoted opinions,” she wrote for The Daily Beast.

At Vernon Hills High School in Chicago, the Muslim Student Association held a “Walk a Mile in Her Hijab” event last week to deepen understanding about Muslims and hijabi women, said Yasmeen Abdallah, a senior and the association’s president, to the Chicago Daily Herald.

“You can’t really understand or judge a person and their beliefs until you understand why they do it and what it's like for them to do what they're doing,” Yasmeen, who is Muslim, said.

Besides an incident where a male student told one of the girls to remove her headscarf as he passed her in the hall, Yasmeen reported positive experiences among the participants.

Buzzfeed in January also followed four women who donned a headscarf for a day. One reported being “patted down extra” at the airport and said she felt the need to appear more friendly. Another noted the hijab “kind of does the talking for you, it makes the first impression for you.”

“If people have negative connotations about women who wear hijab,” she added, “it’s hard to kind of counterbalance that.”

All said they were stared at more than usual.

Still, the women afterward reported a change in the way they understood those who wear hijab.

“I like the things that it represents if those things are being humble, and being intellectual, and being equal,” one said.

A ‘superficial exercise’?

Yet some say putting on a headscarf for a single day could hardly convey the full experience and struggle of a hijabi woman.

Muslim journalist Amarra Ghani told Slate that while she can accept what Professor Hawkins at Wheaton was trying to accomplish, “wearing [a headscarf] around as if to say ‘I understand your struggle, I understand what you're going through and I am standing up with you’ isn't something that can be accepted.”

“Hawkins may be attacked, looked at differently, stopped at the airport – but at the end of it all, she will be able to leave her experiment,” she said.

Fatihah, who runs the blog Ms. Muslamic, sees the whole endeavor as “a reductive and superficial exercise.” In a post on World Hijab Day 2014, she writes:

[E]ven though the day is ostensibly about Muslim women and their experiences ... The spotlight is firmly on the experiences of non-Muslim women who are merely tourists in the world of hijab. As such it privileges the experience of non-Muslim women over and above the stories and narratives of actual Muslim women who wear hijab every day.

Part of the issue is that the headscarf means different things to different women, and those nuances are not always captured in a day-long experiment, says Ms. Khatri at ISNA.

“The hijab is an external manifestation of the belief,” she says. “When I wear it, it reminds me of my faith, of my connection to God. It motivates me, it empowers me, and it’s something that’s a part of my identity.

“It is very personal.”

To ensure the exercise does not become frivolous or meaningless, it should be less about the headscarf and more about interfaith dialogue, Khatri says.

“I would suggest that [wearing a hijab] be part of a structured program with a debriefing after, where non-Muslims can express their concerns and questions, and someone who does wear hijab could help on that experience,” she says.

She also proposes that women who want to understand Muslims engage real Muslim women in conversation before participating in events like “Wear a Hijab Day.”

“I think they should reach out to someone who wears a headscarf, or spend a day with that person,” Khatri says. “The dialogue is much more important than the actual wearing of the scarf. Because at the end of the day, it is just a piece of fabric.”

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